Analyzing Song Lyrics for Fun and Profit... OK, Maybe Not Profit.

Mike Sherov

Sr. Song Lyric Analyst

Behance Team @ Adobe

The Rules

Rule #1

Leave your Ideology at the Door

  • Offensive vs Offended
  • Remember Fahrenheit 451

Rule #2

All Interpretations are Valid, Not All are Equal

  • Death of the Author
  • Infer vs. Imply
  • Remember Fahrenheit 451

Rule #3

There are No Experts

  • Wikipedia

Analyzing Lyrics As "The Message"

Discovering The True Meaning Of Selected Lyrics

Why is meaning often ignored in music?

  • Passive Medium
  • Missing Context
  • Message vs. Medium
  • Interpreting Too Literally
  • Interpreting Too Metaphorically

Fortunate Son

Seemingly: A song about "good" patriots and citizens

Missed Context

Actually: Those "good patriots"... that ain't me! I ain't no fortunate son!

Briefly used by Richard Nixon as a campaign song before he ever sat down and heard THE CHORUS

Fortunate Son

Some folks are born made to wave the flag
Ooh they're red, white and blue
And when the band plays Hail to the Chief
Ooh, they point the cannon at you, Lord...

Missed Context


Born In The U.S.A

Missed Context

Seemingly: A patriotic call for endurance through potentially rough times.

Actually: A vet comes home after fighting for his country and gets no help. "Born In The U.S.A." is more like "But I was born in the U.S.A.! How can this be what's happening?"

George Will: He is no whiner, and the recitation of closed factories and other problems always seems punctuated by a grand, cheerful affirmation: 'Born in the U.S.A.!'"

Born In The U.S.A

Missed Context

Come back home to the refinery
Hiring man says "Son if it was up to me"
Went down to see my V.A. man
He said "Son, don't you understand"

Hey Ya

Seemingly: ??? Good Dance Song?

Message Overshadowed By Medium

Actually: I think my girlfriend wants to cheat on me, but is afraid of losing our relationship, so let's end it now because staying together and being unhappy is dumb. Everyone else, lets just have a good time to avoid all this nonsense.

Hey Ya

Message Overshadowed By Medium

If what they say is "Nothing is forever"
Then what makes - then what makes
Love the exception? So why oh why oh, are we so in denial?

My baby don't mess around
Because she loves me so
And this I know for sho
But does she really want it
But can't stand to see me
Walk out the door?

The Hook

Actually: Pop songs are formulaic and the listeners aren't discerning, yet pop songs are a necessary evil so artists can make money so they can say real things on their other "real" songs... So why not make a fake pop song explaining that concept, so at least I can feel better about having to write pop songs.

Message Overshadowed By Medium

Seemingly: ??? A song about peter pan?

The Hook

It doesn't matter what I say
So long as I sing with inflection
That makes you feel I'll convey
Some inner truth or vast reflection

But I've said nothing so far
And I can keep it up for as long as it takes
And it don't matter who you are
If I'm doing my job then it's your resolve that breaks

Message Overshadowed By Medium

The Hook

There is something amiss
I am being insincere
In fact I don't mean any of this
Still my confession draws you near
To confuse the issue I refer
To familiar heroes from long ago
No matter how much Peter loved her
What made the Pan refuse to grow

Message Overshadowed By Medium

The Hook

Suck it in, suck it in, suck it in If you're Rin Tin Tin or Anne Boleyn Make a desperate move or else you'll win And then begin to see What you're doing to me this MTV is not for free It's so PC it's killing me 

Message Overshadowed By Medium

So desperately I sing to thee Of love, Sure but also of rage and hate and pain and fear of self And I can't keep these feelings on the shelf I've tried -- well no in fact I lied Could be financial suicide but I've got too much pride inside To hide or slide I'll do as I'll decide and let it ride until I've died 

And only then shall I abide this tide Of catchy little tunes Of hip three minute ditties I wanna bust all your balloons I wanna burn all your cities to the ground I've found I will not mess around Unless I play then hey I will go on all day Hear what I say I have a prayer to pray That's really all this was And when I'm feeling stuck and need a buck I don't rely on luck because

Silly Love Songs

Actually: A comment on the value of love songs. An ironic response to John Lennon's accusation that all McCartney does is write poppy love songs.

Too Literal

Seemingly: Professing Love To Someone

Silly Love Songs

Too Literal

You'd think that people
Would've had enough of silly love songs
But I look around me
And I see it isn't so

Some people want to fill the world
With silly love songs
And what's wrong with that?
I'd like to know
Cause here I go again

I love you
I love you
I love you
I love you

Baby Got Back

Too Literal

Seemingly: Sir Mix a lot really likes big butts.

Actually: Yes, he loves big butts, but so does everyone else. The established concept of "skinny = beautiful" is wrong, and comes from whitewashing perpetrated by popular media.

Baby Got Back

Too Literal

Becky, look at her butt...

she's just so... black!

I like big butts and I can not lie,
You other brothers can't deny

I'm tired of magazines
Sayin' flat butts are the thing
Take the average black man and ask him that
She gotta pack much back

Baby Got Back

Too Literal

So I'm looking at rock videos
Watching these bimbos walking like hoes
You can have them bimbos
I'll keep my women like Flo Jo

when it comes to females, Cosmo ain't got nothin'
To do with my selection...

So Cosmo says you're fat
Well I ain't down with that!

To the beanpole dames in the magazines:
You ain't it, Miss Thing!

Total Eclipse of the Heart

Too Metaphorical

Seemingly: I'm depressed, but your love is the only good thing in my life.

Actually: I'm a vampire, but your love is the only good thing in my life.

Great example of Author Confirmation! Was Originally "Vampires In Love"

Every now and then I get a little bit nervous that the best of all the years have gone by (because I'm a vamp now)

Total Eclipse of the Heart

Too Metaphorical

Every now and then I get a little bit terrified (of being a vampire)  And then I see the look in your eyes... bright eyes!

And if you only hold me tight
We'll be holding on forever (because vamps live forever)

I don't know what to do and I'm always in the dark (because sunlight burns my vampire body)

Once upon a time there was light in my life (because I was human)
But now there's only love in the dark (because I'm a vamp)

Glass Onion

Too Metaphorical

Seemingly: Explains deep truths about other Beatles songs.

Actually: Our songs aren't metaphors. Here's an endless barrage of meaningless red herrings. Our music seems to have layers (like an onion), but is quite transparent (like glass). Stop analyzing our lyrics.

Glass Onion

Too Metaphorical

I told you about strawberry fields
You know the place where nothing is real
Well here's another place you can go

Well here's another clue for you all
The walrus was Paul

Lady Madonna trying to

make ends meet-yeah

I told you about the fool on the hill.. Fixing a hole in the ocean

Trying to make a dove-tail joint-yeah
Looking through a glass onion

Bohemian Rhapsody

#166 on Rolling Stone's top 500 of all time

Most Played Song of All Time on BBC Radio 1

On It's Surface...

A Man Commits Murder...

Confesses to His Mother...

His Mother Please For His Life With Demons...

He resigns himself to the Demons...

His Mother Storms Away in Anger...

He Acts as if His Fate is OK...

Bohemian Rhapsody

Beneath The Surface?

Freddie Mercury has his first homosexual experience...

Confesses to his then wife...

He battles with himself and his wife over his sexuality...

He accepts his homosexuality...

His wife storms away in anger...

He is upset over hurting his wife

Bohemian Rhapsody

Methaphoric Symbols

Death / Devils = Homosexuality

God / Christ = Heterosexuality

Gun = A Certain Body Part

Mama = Mary Austin (his then wife)

Open Questions?

Why Does Mercury use negative symbolism? 

Bohemian Rhapsody

Freddie Mercury has his first homosexual experience...

Confesses to his then wife...

Mama, just killed a man, put a gun against his head
Pulled my trigger, now he's dead
Mama, life had just begun
But now I've gone and thrown it all away

Goodbye, everybody, I've got to go
Gotta leave you all behind and face the truth

Mama, ooh, I don't want to die
I sometimes wish I'd never been born at all

Bohemian Rhapsody

He battles with himself and his wife over his sexuality...

  • Mercury: I see a little silhouetto of a man
  • Mercury: Scaramouche, Scaramouche...
  • The Devil: will you do the Fandango?
  • Mercury: Thunderbolt and lightning, very, very fright'ning me
  • Mercury: (Galileo.) Galileo. (Galileo.) Galileo. Galileo figaro magnifico
  • Mercury: I'm just a poor boy, nobody loves me
  • Mary: He's just a poor boy from a poor family
  • Mary: Spare him his life from this monstrosity

Bohemian Rhapsody

He accepts his homosexuality...

  • Mercury to Mary: Easy come, easy go, will you let me go?
  • Mary: Bismillah! No, we will not let you go
  • The Devils: Let him go!
  • Mercury to Mary: Mama mia, let me go... Beelzebub has a devil put aside for me, for me, for me!

Bohemian Rhapsody

His wife storms away in anger...

So you think you can stone me and spit in my eye?
So you think you can love me and leave me, to die?
Oh, baby, can't do this to me, baby!
Just gotta get out, just gotta get right outta here!

Bohemian Rhapsody

He is upset over hurting his wife

Nothing really matters, anyone can see
Nothing really matters
Nothing really matters to me
Any way the wind blows

99 Problems

What does "bitch" mean?

99 Problems

What does "bitch" mean?

Literal Interpretation: A Woman

Jay - Z: Definitely not a woman

Samples and Borrowed Lyrics: A Woman

Theme / Wordplay : Different each verse

Answer: Different Each Verse... Dave, you were partially right.

Analyzing Lyrics As "The Medium"

Appreciating Lyrics As Art In And Of Themselves

Why Hip Hop?

  • The human voice as percussion instrument

  • Persistent use of simile and double entendre

  • Immersive Storytelling as communication method

Human Voice as

Percussive Instrument

  • Consonance (and alliteration)
  • Assonance (and half-rhymes)
  • End Rhyme vs. Internal Rhyme


Rap rejects my tape deckejects projectile / Whether Jew or gentile, I rank top percentile

- Fugees, Zealot


Perfected poem, powerful punch lines

Pummeling petty powder puffs in my prime

 - Blackalicious, Alphabet Aerobics


Dead in the middle of little Italy little did we know that we riddled some middleman who didn't do diddly.

- Big Pun, Twinz

Slant Rhyme

And be prosperous, though we live dangerous 

Cops could just arrest me, blamin’ us, we’re held like hostages

 - Nas, NY State of Mind

End Rhyme

Now, what you hear is not a test, I'm rapping to the beat.
And me, the groove, and my friends are gonna try to move your feet.

 - Sugar Hill Gang, Rapper's Delight

Internal Rhyme

The attractive assassin

blastin the devil trespassin

Master gettin cash in an 

orderly fashion.

 - The Roots, Respond/React

Eminem - Renegade

Simile and Double Entendre

Double Entendre

If I sell a brick I can buy a house
If they find the key they might lock me up

- Logic, Gang Related

When I come back like Jordan, wearing the 45

It ain't to play games with you... probably mame you.

 - Jay Z, Encore

I don’t half-step on the ‘caine

- Jay Z, Hello Brooklyn 2.0


You stopping us is preposterous
like an androgynous misogynist

- Talib Kweli - Twice Inna Lifetime

I refugee from Guantanamo Bay 
Dance around the border like I'm Cassius Clay

- Praz, Ready Or Not

My rhymes are like shot clocks,
interstate cops
and blood clots,
my point is your flow gets stopped.

 - Talib Kweli - Hater Players

Immersive Storytelling

Lost Boyz - Renee

I get a beep from Renee
Because Renee uses code 2
But yet I'm chattin' with her mom dukes
She says "Renee has been shot
So Cheeks, meet me up at St. Luke's"
I jumps on the Van Wyck
I gotta make it there quick

Slick Rick - Children's Story

Once upon a time not long ago
When people wore pajamas and lived life slow
When laws were stern and justice stood
And people were behavin' like they ought ta good
There lived a lil' boy who was misled
By another lil' boy and this is what he said:
"Me and you, Ty, we gonna make some cash
Robbin' old folks and makin' tha dash"
They did the job, money came with ease
But one couldn't stop, it's like he had a disease

99 Problems

So I, pull over to the side of the road, I heard
"Son do you know why I'm stopping you for?"
Cause I'm young and I'm black and my hat's real low

Do I look like a mind reader sir, I don't know
Am I under arrest or should I guess some more?
"Well you was doing fifty-five in a fifty-four
License and registration and step out of the car
Are you carrying a weapon on you? I know a lot of you are"

I ain't stepping out of shit, all my paper's legit
"Well, do you mind if I look around the car a little bit?"
Well, my glove compartment is locked, so is the trunk in the back
And I know my rights, so you gon' need a warrant for that
"Aren't you sharp as a tack
You some type of lawyer or something?
Somebody important or something"


Renegade Rhyme Scheme:

Spotify Playlist:

Analyzing Song Lyrics for Fun and Profit... OK, Maybe Not Profit.

By mikesherov

Analyzing Song Lyrics for Fun and Profit... OK, Maybe Not Profit.

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